Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Academic views paid for by big tobacco

It is nothing new to reveal that the cigarette companies lied their heads off about the dangers of cigarettes for 50 years. They knew 50 years ago that smoking cigarettes definitely caused lung cancer and while they debunked a range of animal-based experiments they were carrying out their own animal experiments which confirmed the conclusions they publicly rejected. But in recent years the companies have gone a bit quiet on the lies front.

Their lies are now out in the open because of some famous whistle-blowing activities by former industry insiders.

There are profound moral issues here. It is unethical to sell a product you know kills people even if people chose voluntarily to purchase it. Attempts to expand cigarette sales by encouraging women, children and citizens in developing countries to smoke are instances of this immorality.

This article in New Scientist discusses the way big name scientists were paid to play down the dangers of smoking from the 1970s through to the late 1990s. Front groups funded by tobacco companies were created to suggest that smoking provided health benefits by relieving people of stress. As late as 1998 the philosopher Roger Scruton was involved in work that suggested low social damages from smoking:

‘in a 1998 piece for The Times newspaper in London, Scruton attacked arguments over smoking and health costs by noting, for example, that smokers impose less of a health burden than others because they die early. It was revealed in 2002 that he had been paid annually by Japan Tobacco International’.

Another major sponsored tobacco supporter was the very prominent psychologist Hans Eysenck.

The article is based on a paper by Anne Landman, Daniel K. Cortese and Stanton Glantz which unfortunately is subscription only. The abstract is available:

‘The multinational tobacco companies responded to arguments about the social costs of smoking and hazards of secondhand smoke by quietly implementing the Social Costs/Social Values project (1979–1989), which relied upon the knowledge and authoritative power of social scientists to construct an alternate cultural repertoire of smoking. Social scientists created and disseminated non-health based, pro-tobacco arguments without fully acknowledging their relationship with the industry. After the US Surgeon General concluded that nicotine was addictive in 1988, the industry responded by forming “Associates for Research in the Science of Enjoyment” (c.1988–1999), whose members toured the world promoting the health benefits of the use of legal substances, including tobacco, for stress relief and relaxation, without acknowledging the industry's role. In this paper we draw on previously secret tobacco industry documents, now available on the Internet to show how both of these programs utilized academic sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers and economists, and allowed the industry to develop and widely disseminate friendly research through credible channels. Strategies included creating favorable surveys and opinions, infusing them into the lay press and media through press releases, articles and conferences, publishing, promoting and disseminating books, commissioning and placing favorable book reviews, providing media training for book authors and organizing media tours. These programs allowed the tobacco industry to affect public and academic discourse on the social acceptability of smoking’.

The study is based on the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at the University of California, San Francisco which contains over 8 million industry documents. I’ll scout around for an electronic version and if I find one I will post it.

I am not suggesting Scruton, Eysenck and others lied – indeed nicotine is a tranquilising chemical that may have a limited role in treating schizophrenia. That the tars in cigarettes can also kill you is also relevant information and surely the fact that such people received funding from a group whose views they supported is relevant to the evaluation of their views.


conrad said...


most of that work doesn't play down the dangers. As with almost anything, there is research looking at all sides of a problem, and some of those are positive. Similarly, the fact that smokers die earlier is something worth considering when calculating the cost (note that that one is hardly positive). I might note also that almost all funding is biased in some way or other, and generally toward mediocrity in Australia (cf. when was the last time you put something new and exciting in vs. research you have already done). If tobacco companies want to chuck in some real funding -- especially to people like Eysenck who were under serious scrutiny, I don't see the problem. I might note that these days, I'm sure most people would get a promotion for taking the money, so you could hardly blame people for it.

Sinclair Davidson said...

"It is unethical to sell a product you know kills people even if people chose voluntarily to purchase it. "

You need more than this - motor cars also kill, yet few people would argue it's unethical to sell them.

hc said...

Sinclair, Insert after the words 'you know' the words 'when used as intended' sand you make it precise.

People can drown themselves drinking too much water than that is not how water is intended to be consumed. As far as I know cigarettes are the only legal product which kills you when consumed as intended.

Sinclair Davidson said...

I take the point, there is a strong link between smoking and various cancers - yet it is hard (I find) to get excited about this. There are strong links between alcohol and anti-social behaviours often resulting in death - yet I suspect anti-alcohol societal hysteria is nowhere near the levels of anti-smoking.

hc said...

Sinclair, It is an incontrovertible link not merely a 'strong' link. What is sickening is that the link was clear in US and Britain in the early 1960s. There never was any doubt.

I have had a few relatives and a couple of close friends die of lung cancer so I feel strongly about this issue. There are better ways of ending your time on the planet.

Sinclair Davidson said...

I have had several of my relatives die too. Indeed my mother was diagnosed with a rare but aggressive smokers cancer just last year. She'll have knocked 30 years (based on the ages of her mother and grandmothers) off the back end of her life. But she has lived the life she choose.

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